Last week, fellow HealthComU founder Julie Markum Gough wrote about stress and depression during the holidays. In her post, she mentioned seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as something different and separate from your run of the mill holiday stress. Her post prompted me to explore SAD and the issue of mental health a bit further in today’s post.
For some people (myself included) this time of year truly is the most wonderful time of the year. But for others, this time of year is associated with feelings of depression, tension, and stress, as well as mood changes and problems sleeping. Although sometimes brushed off as simply the “winter blues,” according to research, approximately 11 million people in the United States suffer from a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder, which is also appropriately known as SAD.
SAD often strikes in the fall or early winter and can last until March or April. Three out of every four people with SAD are women. Symptoms typically first appear for people with SAD when they are between the ages of 18 and 30, and SAD is more common in areas of the country where winter temperatures are colder and there are fewer sunny winter days.
Although it remains unclear what exactly causes SAD, researchers believe it is likely a mix of decreased sunlight during the fall and winter months, which can cause a drop in serotonin levels, which in turn can cause depression, and a change in the body’s melatonin balance, which can affect sleep patterns and mood.
Form many people who struggle with SAD, phototherapy (also called light box therapy) may be an effective form of treatment. According to Mayo Clinic, phototherapy “mimics outdoor light” and “researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases other symptoms of SAD.” Other treatment options include antidepressants (some doctors may recommend starting medication before symptoms begin if your depression is recurring) and psychotherapy, which can help you cope with SAD and learn how to better manage stress and feelings of depression.
So ok, there’s an explanation for why your friend, your sister, or your husband is feeling and acting out of sorts this winter. Great. But now what?
It can be hard to know how to help someone who suffers from depression or another mental illness, especially if you’ve never experienced something similar before. Out of fear of saying the “wrong thing,” people often end up saying nothing. Or worse, some people approach the situation with “a lack of empathy and knowledge” about mental illness and assert that mental illness, including depression, is something that can be controlled.
Last month, the Huffington Post published an enlightening cartoon by Robot Hugs that depicts what would happen if we treated mental illness in the same manner that we treat physical illness.
Depression, whether seasonal or all year round, is an important issue, and changing the way we talk about mental illness is an important first step in changing the way mental illness is viewed in this country. It is my hope that if health communicators take the lead in starting a dialog about mental illness, including associated stigma, signs and symptoms, and treatment options, maybe someone with SAD won’t feel quite as sad this winter.